Rise of the Military Drone: Fall of Due Process?

Drones like the Predator, Global Hawk, Solar Eagle, and Reaper are to the War on Terror as the SR-71 and U2 were to the Cold war. They bring to the table a host of new abilities and represent one of the most efficient force multipliers currently at the US military’s disposal. Few other nations possess similar technology and even fewer have any means for defending against it.

Drones today provide the military with the ability to spy on or strike anything, anywhere in the world, without endangering the lives of soldiers. These drones are so accurate that in Rise of the Drones on PBS’s Nova, David Deptula, a retired Lt General in the US Air Force said, “The weapons that can be used operate with an error distance of 9 ft, you can put a weapon through a window-sized opening with ease.”

Due to a dearth of laws governing the use of drones, coupled with the 2001 authorization for use of military force, the US government also views drones as a means for targeted assassinations. To date the activity of drones has not been limited to surveillance, but has included force projection ala the bombing of “militant training camps,” often with women and children in the vicinity.

Most notably three American citizens, Anwar Al Awlaki, his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman, and magazine editor Samir Khan were placed on President Obama’s kill list and targeted for summary execution. These individuals were all born in America and were, with the notable exception of Anwar Al Awlaki, never tied directly to acts of aggression against the United States. They were never charged, tried, or even sentenced. Instead, a closed group, with the president at its head, decided that they were deserving of death. America, as of 2011, is legally considered part of the battlefield in the broader war on terror—similar drone strikes can technically occur US soil.

The majority of strikes however, have targeted foreign nationals in countries with which the US is not technically at war. Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Somalia have all had their airspace violated and their citizens subjected to extrajudicial summary execution, often with, according to Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian, little or no factual evidence linking them to a crime or terrorist group.

According to data collected by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as of this year, there have been between 418 and 437 US drone strikes in 4 countries, killing between three and four thousand people. While some of the targets may be truly threatening to our nation, many of those killed by drones—and who would be deemed collateral damage under normal rules of engagement—are now officially dubbed militants by way of being male and over the age of 15.

According to a study from the Columbia Law school of Human Rights, “Media coverage of drone strikes is inconsistent, and it is likely that some deaths and even    entire    strikes are not captured by tracking organizations, particularly to the extent they rely on English-language media sources.”

But despite, or potentially because of, the winding down of traditional troop operations in the Middle East, drone strikes have become the go-to tactic of our nation’s military. According to the outgoing Department of Defense head Leon Panetta, “The reality is [drones are] going to be a continuing tool of national defense in the future.” This is confirmed by the Department of Defense’s plans to construct a “drone base” in Northern Africa. Additionally, the Air Force now trains more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined.

Facilitating the intelligence advantages necessary for these drone strikes is a suite of sensors, known as ARUGS-IS (Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance-Imaging System), that can see what you and everyone else in Corvallis is wearing from an altitude of over three miles. According to then director of DARPA, Regina Dugan, “The ARGUS-IS, is a next-generation airborne capability, providing wide-area, high resolution, color video imaging that enables persistent surveillance of dynamic battle spaces and urban environments.”

High definition video discerns people, vehicles, and their relative movements. The system is capable of imaging objects as small as six inches from an altitude of 3.3 miles and has likely been in operation, overseas and domestically, since 2009.

According to the same Columbia University study cited above, approximately 50 civilians are killed for every dead terrorist. Given that one of the primary grievances named by captured terrorists is the death of a family member at the hands of coalition forces, it stands to reason that killing more civilians than terrorists merely generates more potential terrorists.

It is this writer’s opinion that the US drone program’s continued violation of national sovereignty and process of extrajudicial execution not only flouts the rule of law, it destroys the trust that undergirds international relations. Why negotiate with the United States if they ignore your sovereignty and kill your citizens as they choose? Why follow the rules of war, namely of eschewing the targeting of civilian populations, if your enemy doesn’t?

The United States didn’t win the cold war with bombs. The Berlin Wall didn’t fall because of superior military might. These things happened because western systems were more attractive, more industrious, more innovative, and, most importantly, freer.

by William Tatum

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